UK wide receivers: Cats to reach new heights in 2014

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 14, 2014 

  • Season opener

    Tennessee-Martin at Kentucky

    When: Noon Saturday, Aug. 30

    TV: SEC Network

  • Scouting the wide receivers

    The main man: After leading the Cats in receiving in his first year on the roster with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns, coaches say even bigger things are coming Javess Blue's way with a year of experience.

    The supporting cast: Offensive coordinator Neal Brown says the Cats are still a recruiting class away from having a full complement of wide receivers to play his style, but UK seems to be a lot closer with four of its top four wideouts back in Blue: Ryan Timmons, Jeff Badet and Demarco Robinson as well as Alexander Montgomery. Three true freshmen, Blake Bone, Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson, are expected to add size and speed to the group as well as Rashad Cunningham, who missed last season.

    Outlook: When Mark Stoops and Brown arrived, there were few options for Kentucky at wide receiver, especially for a team that wanted to run an Air Raid-style offense. The Cats seem closer now and have some good leadership in players like Blue among others. They also have much more depth should injuries pile up as they did late last season. Brown also went out and got some size, something UK was sorely lacking last season with just one wideout listed at taller than 6-foot-1.

    JENNIFER SMITH

It's almost as if there was a "you must be this short to play" ruler over Kentucky's wide receivers last season.

And that line with the oversized arrow was roughly 6-foot-1.

Only one wide receiver that caught a pass for the Cats last season was taller than that, and he missed part of the season with an injury.

UK had more available targets, but none who were able to consistently go up and over defensive backs and come down with the ball.

So Kentucky's offensive coaches went searching for size, and they found it in freshmen such as 6-5 Blake Bone and 6-3 Dorian Baker.

"Everybody can run in this league; everybody runs well," offensive coordinator Neal Brown explained. "Every defensive back we're going to play in this league runs well, but everybody doesn't have 6-3 or above playing corner. You can make a lot of those tie-ball situations go to the bigger guy."

Kentucky's size upgrades have been apparent at the open practices, with quarterbacks able to throw the ball on fade routes into the corners of the end zones and see guys with the same-colored jersey come out with the ball.

That was a luxury UK didn't have last season beyond Alexander Montgomery, who missed the final four games with a knee injury and hasn't been available so far this fall camp.

It was quite the extravagance for Kentucky's quarterbacks this summer having Baker, Bone, now-eligible Rashad Cunningham (6-foot-4) and even newcomer Garrett Johnson (5-11), who was singled out by teammates for his ability to go up and come down with the ball.

"That's something we haven't had in the past," sophomore Patrick Towles said on Media Day. "And it just makes a quarterback's life a lot easier when the ball doesn't have to be perfect every single time."

For Reese Phillips, his eyes get fixed on Baker sometimes because he knows what's going to happen if he throws the ball his way.

"We'd throw balls up to him and he'd grab them, big strong hands," Phillips said of Baker, a four-star prospect out of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, who averaged 23.9 yards a catch his senior season. "That's just something you want."

It's more than something Brown wants.

It's something the coordinator needs to run his Air Raid offense effectively.

"That's something we made a living on at (Texas) Tech," Brown said of his last coaching stop. "We were long on the outside. ... We did a really good job throwing those goal-line fades, goal-line post routes in the back of the end zone there once we got down. We scored touchdowns at a really high percentage."

In Brown's final season with the Red Raiders, 6-4 Darin Moore was the team's leading receiver, gaining 1,032 yards and 13 touchdowns on 92 catches.

Those 92 catches were more than all but 12 receivers in the nation had that season and his 13 receiving touchdowns were fifth-best.

Baker, Bone and others may not get 92 catches this season, but coaches believe they will be game-changers if they continue to develop.

"Both of them are big, physical guys that have good ball skills," wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord said. "They're a little bit different in that Dorian's a little bit stronger now. Blake will get there one day, but Dorian's more of a physical guy and Blake's more of a — he's still physical, but he's so much longer that he's got better reach.

"So they're a little bit different but the same, too, because they're both long guys you can throw the ball on top of and make plays with, so we're excited about that."

The idea that they could help right away was one of the reasons that Bone and Baker decided to come to UK.

"It's something that Kentucky's been lacking," Bone said of the height factor. "Now that we've signed a couple of guys that have the length and the size and the speed ... it really speaks numbers for what Kentucky's going to have in the future. I think we're going to compete for bowl games in the future."

Can added height really take Kentucky to new heights?

Its head coach hopes so.

"The bigger receivers ... it was nice," Mark Stoops said after a recent open practice. "Now we've got to get them to grow up fast."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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